The Arumeru Tax Revolt in Tanzania in 1998

I stumbled on this paper from the Oxford Department of International Development: “Governance, Local Politics, and ‘Districtization’ in Tanzania: the Arumeru Tax Revolt” by Tim Kelsall.

In the Arumeru tax revolt, “one of the most remarkable instances of rural political mobilization since Independence, almost the entire population of the District refused to pay Local Government Development Levy.” The tactics employed by the resisters included “the beating up of Council tax collectors, the burning of the Council Chairman’s house and his subsequent resignation, a march by as many as 15,000 people on the Regional Headquarters… [and] the spread of the dispute to other Districts…”

The revolt seems to have been prompted by typical corruption. People paid taxes but saw little government service in return, and what they did see was disproportionately found in the backyards of the politically powerful, who were also able to leverage their political authority into ostentatious wealth. A deteriorating economy, failing crops from an El Niño weather year, and an abrupt and steep tax hike provided the spark.

Members of the community began to organize to investigate corruption and conduct independent audits of government spending in .

Throughout this period the Council was unable to collect tax in Arumeru West and collection was also low in the East. Arusha murran [a Maasai age-set, often but somewhat inaccurately described as the “warrior” age-set] organized to protect women market traders from the attention of tax collectors. Some collectors were beaten up; others chased away. With frustrations mounting, an armed crowd of 10,000 gathered again at Emahoi, and were met by riot police. The District Police Commander pleaded through a loudhailer for demonstrators to disperse, or to hold their meeting in an adjacent field. Instead, elements among the crowd vowed to burn the houses of Council members. They ransacked a house of the Chairman, burned possessions and smashed windows, before burning the house itself. Four people were arrested and the crowd dispersed by police. As many as 15,000 protestors then converged on the Regional Office, seeking the detainees’ release. One account describes this as a peaceful and orderly protest policed by “security guards” carrying white flags. Another report suggests that protesters warned the Regional Commissioner that if the accused were not released they would continue their burning campaign. The Commissioner arranged for their release. A third meeting was held at which the Regional Commissioner, District Commissioner and District Executive Director attended. The Regional Commissioner instituted a Commission to probe allegations of corruption and causes of political unrest in the District.

The Commission’s report, when it was completed, painted a damning picture of patrimonial rule and rampant corruption.

That report called for the resignation of the council chairman and his crony councilmembers. They refused. The Prime Minister made a visit to the area, during which residents threatened a tax strike until the council was dissolved.

Kelsall notes that the protesters deliberately spurned opposition parties who tried to piggyback on the protest for partisan ends. He quotes one: “We knew that by involving the opposition they will double the problem as they are starting to show who is better and who is not.”

Eventually the council chairman resigned. A public accounting of government revenue and expenditure was made available. The rebels Kelsall interviewed “were extremely enthusiastic about the outcome of the revolt,” but Kelsall himself is more skeptical, seeing the revolt as largely serving the machinations of political elites maneuvering against one another.

In other news…